Rosamond Bernier first came to my attention in 1977, when I was about to set out on a lecture tour through the U.S. on behalf of the Alliance Française. Several friends urged me to prepare by attending one of Bernier’s famed art talks at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, where she appeared six or seven times a year for four decades, ending in 2008. I succeeded in getting a ticket—she was then at the peak of her career—and watched her perform with a mix of awe and amusement. I think her subject was the Renaissance. Dressed and coiffed as for a gala, the perky 60ish blonde moved about the stage with flamboyant assurance, gesturing with her graceful arms and hands exactly on cue toward the images on the screen, and with no text in sight. I detected a certain vagueness on dates, but her listeners were enthralled. Fans will surely enjoy Some of My Lives, her disjunctive but lively chronicle of a long, rich and adventurous life on two continents.
Bernier’s “life” at the Met started in 1971. Soon after, John Russell, art critic at the Sunday Times in London, followed her across the Atlantic and joined the New York Times. She and Russell tied the knot—Bernier for the third time—at Philip Johnson’s Glass House in 1975. Guests included Andy Warhol and the dealer Pierre Matisse as well as Aaron Copland, Virgil Thomson and Leonard Bernstein. Judging from the chapter “About John,” the couple lived happily ever after, accumulating honors such as their respective Légion d’honneur decorations. Russell died in 2008.
The fashion Bernier wore for her lectures had much to do with her earlier job at Vogue, as did her way of moving elegantly about the stage—probably learned from watching models at work. As for her fluency in French and matters of art, both were nurtured during her 22 years in Paris (1947-69). Indeed, she had several other lives before her apotheosis as a lecturer.
Bernier was born in 1916 in Philadelphia and spent her early years in a privileged milieu—her Jewish father, Samuel R. Rosenbaum, was a highly successful lawyer who headed the board of the Philadelphia Orchestra. Her English-born mother died when Rosamond was eight, and the girl, largely raised by a French-speaking governess, received part of her schooling in England. She played the harp and rode horseback. After attending Sarah Lawrence College for three years, she left without a degree to marry the wealthy land developer Lewis A. Riley, Jr., with whom she moved to Mexico. Her time there in the late ’30s and early ’40s is notable not only for the art celebrities the debutante-turned-wife met—including Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera and his fellow muralists—but for her home menagerie and her adventures learning to pilot a plane. At a house the couple built in Acapulco, she played host to the young and wild novelist Malcolm Lowry and to the equally erratic Paul and Jane Bowles.
After divorcing Riley in 1943 (he later married the actress Dolores del Río), Bernier left Mexico for New York City, armed with the phone numbers of people at Vogue magazine. She was hired, without experience, as a fashion editor following a lunch at the French restaurant Voisin with Edna Chase, the publication’s longtime head. Of office politics, Bernier writes, “If you knew what was good for you at Vogue, you bought a Tatiana hat, her husband being the all powerful Alexander Liberman [who eventually became artistic director of Condé Nast].” No doubt Bernier’s inborn chic helped. Her position often entailed making sure that the models looked good for the photo shoots. The job took her to Paris in 1946 to check out the first postwar collections. She stayed at the Crillon hotel and worked hard to keep the magazine’s sketch artist sober. Having to recruit models and pose if no one else was available, she made friends in the Paris fashion houses, and they contributed generously to her attire throughout her career. (“I had prepared an elegant but subdued outfit for the evening: a strawberry-pink cashmere skirt that Halston made me, and a Zandra Rhodes blouse.”)
Fortunately, fashion stimulated but did not sate Bernier’s impassioned curiosity. “I returned from Paris fascinated by the stirrings in all the arts, so much to look at, to listen to, to read about,” she writes. “However seductive, the fashion world, I felt, was not the be-all and end-all of possibilities.” She parlayed her Paris assignment into a tentative post as Vogue’s European features editor and, in 1947, found herself in London, hobnobbing with the local literati. (“Dylan Thomas attached himself to me and accompanied me on my rounds.”) She could provide a hot bath at the Dorchester and imported foods from Paris. In gratitude, the poet Stephen Spender wrote a piece on English theaters lit by gaslight and candles, a Vogue commission that Bernier herself was too sick to undertake. He became a lifelong friend and attended her wedding to Russell.
After a few months in London, Bernier made Paris her base. In the late ’40s, the city was in transition; yet she mostly ignored younger artists. Her Vogue credentials led her straight to the famous—Picasso, Matisse, Braque, Léger, Max Ernst, Miró and Jean Cocteau. (Later she would take an interest in Louise Bourgeois and David Hockney.) She also sought out relatives of dead artists, such as the daughter of Berthe Morisot, and aging Russian émigrés then living modestly in odd corners of the French capital. Bernier devotes a chapter to Natalia Goncharova, Mikhail Larionov and Antoine Pevsner. There are also sketches of famous people she met who were not visual artists, like the movie directors René Clair and Vittorio de Sica, and designers Coco Chanel and Karl Lagerfeld. These meetings answered to an intelligent curiosity, but fell somewhat short of qualifying her fully as either a budding art historian or a contemporary art critic.
Even so, Bernier’s visits to Matisse went well, except for a rather strange request from the painter: “‘I believe you write for Vogue magazine?’ he said. I said indeed I did. ‘Then you owe me thirty-eight dollars, please.’” (Before the war, Vogue had apparently failed to pay the artist his fee for reproduction of a work. Bernier promptly wrote a check.) We also learn that Matisse went to fashion shows with his wife and daughter, and even attended the fittings. Bernier was present when Matisse’s Florilège des amours de Ronsard, with its 126 lithographs, was delivered to him by his Swiss publisher, Albert Skira. Later, Bernier and Skira spent evenings drinking together in Geneva, and he arranged for her to meet Picasso. “Don’t wear a hat, and don’t ask any questions,” Skira advised. The hat veto seemed strange to her (as it does to me) because, especially during WWII, the artist often painted seated women wearing unusual hats.
Bernier reports that Picasso was a hoarder. In his studio, she notes, “every book, every magazine, every catalog, every piece of wrapping, and every last length of string lay where it had fallen, together with flea-market finds, a stuffed owl, bulging portfolios of drawings and engravings.” Her first encounters with the artist went well, and he invited her to Antibes in the south of France, where he was working. She managed to see his paintings in progress and had them photographed for Vogue, which she considered a coup. Her boss saw things another way. Over tea at the Ritz, Chase chided her foreign editor for not being in the office much of the time. She also reminded the young woman, “If people are nice to you, it’s only because of Vogue.”
With help from Skira, his Swiss associate and “a French partner,” Bernier launched L’Oeil (The Eye)
in January 1955. This celebrated publication was a joint venture
with Georges Bernier, Rosamond’s “fiscal expert” and second husband (from 1948 to 1969). He must have been a terrible partner both as a spouse and as a colleague, for one waits in vain for any mention of
his name. She does say that her successor at the Met is her stepson Olivier Bernier, whom she calls her best friend.
L’Oeil was founded on an admirable editorial policy:
My aim was to produce a lively publication with attractive layouts and well-written, readable texts by experts who did not pontificate, something of top quality that young people on a tight budget could buy. . . . We had a motto: all the arts, from all the countries, from all times.
The first issue featured an article on the Renaissance-era École de Fontainebleau written by the director of the Fontainebleau château museum, Charles Terrasse. It also contained, she recounts, an interview with the eminent dealer
Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, a piece on Giacometti, reflections on Bavarian Rococo by the British man of letters Cyril Connolly and, on the cover, a detail of Fernand Léger’s painting La Grande Parade (1954).
Bernier’s own report of a visit to Picasso’s sister Doña Lola de Vilató in Barcelona made a splash in the fourth issue of L’Oeil. Brother and sister had not seen each other in 17 years. Doña Lola had albums of early family portraits, sketches and a group of works by Picasso from 1917. Bernier took photographs of the art, showed them to Picasso, and published them in the magazine.
Throughout the book, but especially in the chapters “L’Oeil Begins with a Gift from Picasso” and “Chanel Comeback,” the memoirist conveys on the page the same informality and grace that admirers found irresistible in her lectures. Yet the volume is, as its “scrapbook” designation suggests, an idiosyncratic work, devoid of strict chronology or an index. In the account of her upbringing, the author omits discussion of her sister, Heather (later identified in passing), and a brother who died in childhood. The Alliance Française organized a U.S. lecture tour for Bernier shortly before my own. Though the tour is described quite vividly in her chapter “Lecturing Notes,” the sponsor’s name does not make it into the fairy tale called Some of My Lives, which can be summarized, in my view, as “how a bright young rich girl from Philadelphia came to mingle with international art stars before becoming one herself.”
MICHÈLE C. CONE teaches at the School of Visual Arts in New York.